Hell on Wheels has all the parts and none of the execution. In typical AMC period-piece style, production values are high, color saturations are minimal, soft focus sets a calm over some great turmoil. Here, though, it was too much. Granted, the Western seems nearly an impossible genre to do without ringing major bells of contrivance, but it seems like they’ve taken it too far, tried too hard to make it look real and in the process made the whole premise unbelievable. Lilly Bell looks idyllic sitting on the hillside, but I’d venture to say there wasn’t a vast supply of make-up in the forward reaches of the frontier.
Form aside, the pilot’s content was also lackluster. It’s a given in pilot episodes that the report between actors won’t yet be strong and they may be ill practiced, but the dialogue itself and the characters should be strong. In this pilot, the both seemed altogether stereotypical. You have a greedy lobbyist, an outlaw seeking revenge, a hardened alcoholic boss, a defiant black man, and a delicate but strong female. Seriously? This is the best they could come up with? If they had taken this in the direction of camp and overdid it, then, okay. Instead, it seems that they’re taking these characters quite seriously. The dialogue is full of clichés (the gruff whisper of a reprise “Were you in Meridian” is almost laughable), and the action: need we derive the probability of a gunshot triggering a battle worn, railroad trained horse to rear, and not only rear but do just so that its hoof comes squarely under the chin of a bystander?
That said, I would still give it another week, to see if these problems work themselves out, because the underlying premise has the potential to be interesting. But, I’m not holding my breath.